Jennifer Johnston is keeping her eyes trained on the rugged western slopes of the Goldfield Mountains. The winter-browned peaks are poised to erupt in brilliant springtime wildflowers, and Johnston, park manager at Usery Mountain Regional Park northeast of Mesa, is hoping to spot the spare but elegant Mariposa lily.
“They’re one of the more rare wildflowers,” she says of the blooms, whose name means butterfly in Spanish. “You can see an entire hillside of Mexican gold poppies, but you might see only one Mariposa coming up from behind a rock.”
Johnston’s chances for spotting one of the delicate, gray-leafed plants are good. Wildflower enthusiasts around the Valley are hopeful for a banner year of blooms, thanks to considerable winter rainfall.
“I’m seeing lots of lupine and phacelias starting to peep through the ground on my hikes through the Superstitions,” says Angelica Elliot, wildflower curator at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. “I’m really optimistic that we’ll have a pretty good year.”
That’s an exciting prognostication.
Reliable Arizona bloomers such as saguaro and ocotillo have systems adapted to carry them through dry spells, but wildflower seeds have to compete for moisture. Elliot says the tiny seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years, waiting patiently for enough moisture to coax them into germination. They begin their tenuous existence by late this month or early March.
“Our rainfall did come a little late this year, so we may not have the carpets of blooms,” Elliot says, “but some areas around the Valley are known for their mass amounts of flowers.” Those include Lost Dutchman State Park and state Route 88 in Apache Junction.
Rangers are crossing their fingers for good wildflowers in Maricopa County parks, according to Johnston. East Valley parks include San Tan Mountain Regional Park in Queen Creek, McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Fountain Hills, and Usery. Some parks offer hikes with rangers knowledgeable in the tenuous buds and pamphlets to help self-guided flower fans identify blossoms.
Farther out, Cave Creek Regional Park north of the Carefree Highway, South Mountain Park in Phoenix and White Tank Mountain Regional Park west of Loop 303 in Waddell have a reputation for impressive showings in wildflower years.
Blooms promise brilliant — if fleeting — beauty. Many last only a week, giving way to two or three other varieties fighting to push their way skyward. If it’s a good year, blooms could last into April, giving Valley residents several weekends to hunt up blooms.
The intense colors bursting across the desert floor quickly dispel any ideas of the desert as a bleak wasteland, says Elliot.
“It’s really something you don’t want to miss because only Mother Nature knows when it will happen again.”
Look but don’t touch
Wildflowers are best enjoyed in the ground or on your camera, not in a vase or tucked behind an ear.
If you take a flower, “you’re really hurting the chances of that kind of flower growing in that spot again,” says Angelica Elliot, wildflower curator at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Wildflowers bloom in order to produce seeds, which must fall into the soil in order to germinate and reproduce flowers next season. If you remove the flower, you prevent it from leaving its offspring in the desert.
Picking flowers by the side of some roads is against Arizona law, says Ed Hermes of the Arizona Department of Agriculture. It’s illegal to pull over on a state highway to pick flowers.
Find out where to spot the best displays of desert wildflowers all season long with Desert Botanical Garden’s “Statewide Wildflower Sightings.” The listing is updated weekly through March and April using reports from wildflower devotees across Arizona. Online, visit www.dbg.org and click on the “Statewide Wildflower Sightings” link. Telephone hot line available 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday–Friday, (480) 941-1225.
Where to go to look for wildflowers
Several parks in and around the East Valley are poised to emerge as blooming hot spots.
What: San Tan Mountain Regional Park, 6533 W. Phillips Road, Queen Creek, (480) 655-5554; McDowell Mountain Regional Park, four miles north of Fountain Hills at 16300 McDowell Mountain Park Drive, (480) 471-0173; Usery Mountain Regional Park, 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, north of Mesa, (480) 984-0032.
When: Parks are open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday–Thursday and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cost: $6 per vehicle
What: Lost Dutchman State Park
Where: 6109 N. Apache Trail/state Route 88, near Apache Junction
Cost: $5 per vehicle
Information: (480) 982-4485 or www.azstateparks.gov
What: The Demonstration Garden at Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum State Park in Superior. Last spring, 55 different species bloomed in the garden, which is also a good place to spot purple-black pipevine swallowtail butterflies and iridescent Costa’s hummingbirds. Another bonus: The drive up U.S. 60 takes you through prime wildflower country. For tips on where to stop for the most brilliant roadside blooms, visit the arboretum’s Web site, and click on the “Spring 2008 Wildflowers” link.
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Where: Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum State Park, 37615 U.S. Highway 60, near Superior.
Cost: $7.50 adults; $3 children ages 5 to 12; free for children age 4 and younger
Information: (520) 689-2811 or http://arboretum.ag.arizona.edu
Flower Power Festival
What: Tour Desert Botanical Garden’s popular Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail with wildflower curator Angelica Elliot and garden docents. A Flower Power Market will offer wildflower plants and seeds, garden accessories, ceramics and jewelry.
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 8–9
Where: Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
Cost: Free with paid garden admission of $4 to $10
Information: (480) 941-1225 or www.dbg.org